If women have adapted well to the new economy, the same cannot be said for many men. Why not? It easy to paint the rise of working women as the reason why working men are losing ground, but that’s an oversimplification. In Boys Adrift (2007), psychologist Leonard Sax argues that men aren’t getting the training they need and blames the education system. The school curriculum is all wrong for boys. They’re taught reading and writing at too young an age. Competitive activities and hands-on learning are discouraged. Boys are reprimanded when they show an interest in war and violence. Taken together, these changes lead to the “widespread belief among the children themselves that school isn’t welcoming to real boys.” Restless and bored, boys are diagnosed as ADHD and medicated accordingly. If Tom Sawyer were a boy today, says Sax, he would be on Adderall.
Sax makes his case well, but I don’t believe the challenges facing men can be pinned solely on a female-centric education. Schools by themselves can’t affect a child’s life trajectory as much as we sometimes imagine. Overlapping political, economic and cultural factors are far more significant.
Government social programs are the culprit for the libertarian scholar Charles Murray. In a 2010 address to the American Enterprise Institute Murray relates the story of the janitor:
“When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent (through a range of government social programs like welfare, healthcare and daycare), it doesn’t affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He’s a good provider.” If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t.”
Murray’s poignant description of the impact of welfare state programs is on the mark; it has been played out to devastating effect in many inner-city communities. However, the moral hazard created by government overreach is overstated for those men in working class and middle income communities whose lives have been dislocated by the recession and long-term economic changes.
Journalist Hanna Rosin describes a group of men in Kansas City who could be Murray’s janitors. In her essay “The End of Men” (Atlantic, June 2010) she calls them “casualties of the end of the manufacturing era.”
“The 30 men sitting in the classroom aren’t there by choice: Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. Like them, he [the social worker running the class] explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical ‘white picket fence’ — one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. ‘Well, that check bounced a long time ago,’ he says…’All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that…What is our role? Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be the head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.’ He writes on the board: $85,000. ‘This is her salary.’ Then: $12,000. ‘This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?’ A murmur rises. ‘That’s right. She’s the man.'”
It’s a case of unintended consequences—or, if you believe this is all part of the left’s plan, it would be a case of intended consequences.